‘The Heart of Life': Cedar Rapids native shares remarkable life in memoir

Kathy Eldon speaks about her son Dan Eldon, a respected photo journalist who was clubbed and stoned to death while on assignment in Somali. He was 23. (Courtesy photo)
Kathy Eldon speaks about her son Dan Eldon, a respected photo journalist who was clubbed and stoned to death while on assignment in Somali. He was 23. (Courtesy photo)

Kathy Eldon’s new memoir tracks a life of heartbreak and courage, of guilt and forgiveness, from Cedar Rapids to Africa, around the world and back.

“In the Heart of Life” (HarperOne, 372 pages, $26.99) carries the subtitle “A Restless Soul, a Search for Meaning and a Bond that Nothing Could Break.” summarizes the book as “a mother loses everything before she discovers true joy.”

Both apply equally well to this memoir by Eldon, who grew up in Cedar Rapids as daughter of Russell Knapp, founder of SCI Financial Services, and his wife, Louise. The Knapps were well-known philanthropists before they died — Russell in 2007 at age 98 and Louise in 2008 at age 97.

Pivotal moments in Eldon’s life abound, but the most devastating one came in 1993, when a mob in Somalia stoned and beat her son, Dan Eldon, to death. Dan, a photographer, was on assignment for Reuters, covering unrest in that African country, when he died. He was 22.

Dan had grown up in Kenya, where Kathy and her husband, Mike Eldon, lived after they married. Perhaps it was “genetic memory,” Eldon writes, “but I felt more at home in Kenya than I ever had in London, or even Iowa.”

The Eldon family had adventures — surviving a coup, taking bush trips to the bush — and a busy life filled with friends and travel. Kathy began writing and managing large events. It seemed a perfect life, when viewed from the outside.

But the life also involved other men and secret gorging on food at night.

“Each day,” she writes, “I was having greater difficulty keeping track of who I was — the cheerful businesswoman, journalist, mother, and wife. Or the guilty, sleepless one who kept secrets. Never feeling good enough, I ran faster and faster without stopping to ask why.”

“Leaving my husband was the hardest choice I ever made in my life,” Eldon, now 67, said in a recent interview. “I loved him, loved my life, but there was a calling within me. … Divorce was not a word in our language in the ’50s. My parents did not want me to leave Mike. I dreamed of a circle of chairs where I was excluded.”

And then Dan was killed.

He’d been angry at his mother for leaving his dad, but right before Dan died, he and his mother had come together again. He understood and loved her, confided he wanted to have a large family and “build a little house at the end of my compound so you can tend your goats and look after my 10 children.”

“He forgave me, he understood,” Eldon says. “I hate to think if he had died without that conversation. I would not have healed in the way I have. That final conversation where he said you’re living the life of your choice and I’m so proud of you — it was absolute perfection.”

With the help of psychics and other friends, Eldon kept her sanity and found her voice, committing herself to preserving Dan’s memory. She created a traveling exhibit and best-selling book of Dan’s journals, filmed a documentary about his life, and championed protection of journalists working in war zones. She and her daughter, Amy, founded the Creative Visions Foundation and a center in Malibu, Calif., to honor Dan and assist activist artists.

“Dan is a noisy spirit,” Eldon says.

One reason she wrote a memoir, she says, is that she wants “other people to realize they must not give up and to just keep at it. … We need to create our own life.”

Eldon wrote the first draft of her memoir in 1996. “It just came out of me — pure catharsis. All the stuff that was locked in, the horrible and the joyous,” she says.

She listened to suggestions — people liked the adventure but wanted more emotional content — and kept rewriting until HarperCollins accepted it. She says she also hesitated to tell the full story of her life until after her mother had died. And that, she thinks now, was a mistake.“She was an enlightened and aware person who knew what was going on in the world,” she says. “I don’t think she would have been horrified.”

Eldon has written 17 books and is a sought-after inspirational speaker. She has remarried to Michael Bedner and now lives in a beautiful beachfront home in Malibu.

“I feel like there is hope,” she says. “This is a really tough time for so many people in the world. How do we seek to live and possibly live in the heart of life?”

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